Posts tagged: Liberalism

The Best Version of Liberal Neutrality

Here I outline a version of liberal neutrality I find philosophically attractive. My approach begins by focusing on the moral considerations that lead us to care about neutrality, rather than analyzing the concept of neutrality as an ideal in itself. I then generate a principle of political justification that has those good-making features we want from a principle of neutrality. I think we will see that the principle is morally attractive.

I. Why Care About Neutrality?

Most contemporary liberals care about preventing government from promoting a particular conception of the good (and in some cases, a conception of the right) because they affirm four general claims: (i) persons have a dignity that merits respect, (ii) persons are naturally free and equal, (iii) persons have reasons for action determined by their deep commitments and values, and (iv) these reasons can systematically and reasonably diverge.

I’ve explored a number of these ideas elsewhere. I’ve explored (iv), namely the idea of reasonable pluralism, here and here. I’ve explored the meanings of (ii) and (iii) here. Claim (i) is a pretty obvious platitude.

Summing up, here’s the basic moral idea behind neutrality. The foremost moral imperative is to treat persons with respect, as ends in themselves. If persons are naturally free and equal, in the sense that no person is naturally the servant of another, such that they have equal moral authority, then to respect them is to recognize their moral authority by not compelling them to act against their own best reasoning.

What are persons’ reasons? The liberal tradition has generally allowed that persons have very different reasons for action due to their differing valuing and beliefs. We don’t determine persons’ reasons for action apart from their most deeply held commitments. Thus, the reasons relevant to the justification of coercion are in some sense internal or psychologically accessible. They have their ground in persons’ actual motivations and commitments.

Finally, and due in part to reasonable pluralism, their affirmed reasons will systematically and broadly diverge. Therefore, if we are to respect persons, we can only coerce them when they have sufficient reason, from their own perspective, to comply with the law or policy on which the coercion is based.

So we care about neutrality because we care about respecting naturally free and equal persons who invariably have diverse reasons for action, which in turn requires that we only coerce them if they have sufficient reason of their own to comply. Otherwise we fail to treat persons as free and equal.

Yes, I’ve just equated the idea of public justification with liberal neutrality (find a well-known attempt here) but that’s because I think the idea of public justification provides the most attractive explanation of why we care about neutrality and a clear method of applying neutrality to institutions.

II. Setting Limits on Neutrality

So, given the foregoing, we can say that a nation-state is neutral in the public reason liberal sense when it employs only publicly justified coercion. Policies are neutral when they are justified to a wide range of evaluative perspectives. Laws need not be neutral in having equal effects or outcomes or taking no position on the substantive good. Instead, this ideal of liberal neutrality permits the state to promote goods that all persons reasonably agree are goods. That means we can promote the common good in ways that respect all as persons if the pursuit of the common good is constrained by what is publicly justified.

We do not have to be “neutral” between, say, publicly justified and publicly unjustified laws. Nor need the content of these laws necessarily treat all persons in the same way.

Determining what is justified to persons is not always an easy matter, however. There are well known problems with determining what most peoples believes, since the data that varies based on how questions are framed. Similarly, it is hard to determine from present social practices whether minorities have sufficient reason to endorse those practices, since they may be afraid to voice dissent.

In my view, evaluation via public reason should follow the complaint. When conflicts arise, and people start to complain, we should turn our gaze to their objections and scrutinize them. If we perceive that they have a strong, epistemically justified objection to a law or policy, we can conclude that they have a defeater for the law. Accordingly, we are obligated to reform or revoke the law if we care about treating others as free and equal (as we should).

III. Substitute Neutrality with Public Justification

Political neutrality is a vexed idea, so in my work, as noted, I just use a related idea of public justification, which I think has the attractions of neutrality with far fewer weaknesses. It also gives us a more precise method of determining which regimes are neutral in this more refined sense; I argue that liberal democratic welfare-state capitalism is uniquely neutral in large, diverse societies in Must Politics Be War?, but I have a detailed defense of the basis and content of public justification requirements that I like to think advances the literature, as well as Rawls and Gaus’s contributions to it.

Are Liberal Regimes as Coercive as Integralist Regimes?

A week or so ago, Dave Atenasio published a nice reply to my post arguing that integralist regimes will have a hard time generating requisite levels of stability without lots of coercion. The piece is well-done, so check it out, but I’d like to jump right to the heart of the matter. I concede freely what integralists often say, which is that liberal regimes are coercive. My claim is that liberal regimes are less coercive in allowing a wider range of opinion to flourish. And if there is a natural tendency in the free use of practical reason for people to disagree, integralist regimes will therefore have to employ more coercion to achieve coordination around their comprehensive doctrine than liberal regimes, which are at least somewhat neutral on these matters, and much more than integralist regimes.

Atenasio argues that it’s just not clear whether integralist regimes are more coercive than liberal regimes, and then he proceeds to outline various ways in which liberal regimes are coercive and points out that the coerciveness of both liberal and integralist regimes, even construed as ideal types, come in degrees, and are based on a range of factors, the variety and magnitude of which will make it difficult to show definitively that liberal regimes are less coercive.

I’m pretty sympathetic to the idea that it is hard to determine which regimes and policies are more coercive than others. That’s a big point in my forthcoming book, A Liberal Democratic Peace: Creating Trust in Polarized Times, in Chapter 5. However, I don’t think we’re should be as skeptical as Atenasio believes. My argument begins with a ceteris paribus comparison between the two regime types following three restrictions on how the comparison should proceed.

First condition: I’m going to assume that liberal regimes and integralist regimes can have the same foreign policy and economic policy, within broad limits. So in comparing the two regimes, we can hold these policy classes constant. I know that integralist regimes will, on average, have a narrower band of economic policies, since liberal regimes can vary a lot in this regard, but let’s set that aside for the sake of argument.

So this means that the main comparison between the two regimes will be on social policy.

Second condition: we can hold lots of social policy constant because the degree of coerciveness of these policies are somewhat independent to what is essentially different between integralist and liberal regimes. First,  and most controversially, I think we can hold abortion policy constant because, while liberal regimes tend to permit abortion, and while integralist regimes would seek to end it, nothing about a liberal regime forbids it from adopting pro-life legislation (here I disagree with Rawls that reasonable people have to be at least somewhat pro-choice). There is no inherent instability in a pro-life liberal constitutional order, as long as it is not suffused with a pro-choice ethos. But I admit that if you’re pro-life, there’s a way in which integralist regimes will tend to be less coercive, because they almost always will forbid people from coercing the unborn into an early grave. So if liberal regimes must be pro-choice, then that is a point in the integralist’s favor.

But there are other forms of coercion that go in the other direction, since integralist regimes will embrace far more legal moralism and paternalism, and liberal orders will tend to eschew those practices, so that’s a clear way in which liberalism will be less coercive.

Third restriction: I’m going to hold the degree of pluralism in the populace constant as well. Perhaps integralist regimes will create more Catholics (though they may generate a backlash (which is how integralist regimes created the Reformation, imo: they were too violent and repressed too much disagreement). If so, then integralist regimes will become less coercive because the populace will agree with the policies of the integralist state. But liberal regimes will also not be very coercive if everyone is Catholic. But if everyone is not Catholic, then integralism will be much more coercive than liberalism, and that seems to me pretty clear.

That’s because of the big essential constitutional difference between an integralist regime and a liberal regime: the integralist regime basically has no first amendment. There is no robust right to freedom of speech, press, or religion in an integralist regime. Speech that promulgates heresy and apostasy must be restricted. Publications that promulgate heresy and apostasy must be restricted. And, obviously, the state will use coercion to promote adherence to Catholic belief and practice, even against Protestants and, maybe, Orthodox Christians, not to mention Jews, Muslims, and atheists. There are limits on such coercion, as people cannot be forced to become Catholics against their will. But, if you have been validly baptized, even as an infant, and you decide to speak what you know to be heresy or you apostasize, you’re to be held criminal liable in accord with your level of guilt. So an integralist state can imprison and perhaps even execute recalcitrant heretics.

I recognize that some will want to reject one or more of the three restrictions. But they all seem fair to me. And if they are, it seems clear that integralist regimes will be much more coercive than a regime with first amendment-like protections. Perhaps with enough time and force, the transition to integralism will produce such resolute Catholics that most people won’t even want first amendment rights. But that claim seems in tension with what we see even in heavily Catholic countries. You see lots of disagreement about all kinds of things.

Is Integralism Unreasonable? Yes. Should Integralists Care? Well …

Micah Schwartzman and Jocelyn Wilson’s recent article on the unreasonableness of integralism led to much integralist criticism on Twitter, and even criticism from non-integralist Catholic conservatives. It’s important to recognize that Schwartzman and Wilson expressly state that they’re not trying to engage integralists on their own terms, but to use integralism as the paradigmatic case of an unreasonable doctrine in the Rawlsian sense.

In this post, I want to address whether integralists should care if they’re reasonable. I think there are some ways in which they should care, but it takes some effort to demonstrate. Let’s begin by quickly reviewing the Rawlsian account of reasonableness and asking whether integralists satisfy it.

I. Reasonableness

Very roughly, a person is reasonable in Rawls’s sense when they meet two conditions: (1) They are prepared to propose reciprocal terms of social cooperation, ones that can be endorsed by different worldviews and perspectives, and (2) they recognize the fact of reasonable pluralism, meaning they believe that the free exercise of practical reason leads naturally to disagreement about many important matters. In traditional political liberalism, disagreement primarily concerns the good rather than justice (though I argue in Must Politics Be War? that dissensus about justice runs just as deep).

II. Integralists are Unreasonable

Integralists deny both conditions. They are not prepared to offer mutually endorseable legal and political proposals because their first goal is to prose true, authentically good forms of social cooperation. Second, integralists seem to deny that the free use practical reason leads to dissensus, but rather that sin leads to disagreement and that it can be limited if practical reason is exposed to God’s grace in an integralist regime. So, Schwartzman and Wilson are correct. The paper succeeds on its own term.

III. But They Probably Shouldn’t Care

Now, should integralists care whether they are reasonable in the Rawlsian sense? The most straightforward answer is no, they shouldn’t. Why? Because integralists have a different conception of the person than Rawlsians do. Rawlsians draw their conception of the person from liberal democratic practice, and expressly refuse to go outside of it for the purposes of political philosophy, but integralists are trying to determine whether liberal democracy is a good idea in the most ultimate sense, and they think not. So in one way, the Rawlsian approach to personhood is a total non-starter for integralists. The two conceptions of the persons we not developed to serve they same purpose. It’s not even obvious that their conceptions of the persons are conceptions of the same concept.

Moreover, Rawls’s conception of the person (really, his conception of the citizen) holds that we have two moral powers – to form and pursue a conception of the good, and to develop and act upon our sense of justice. But integralists arguably think that persons have one ultimate moral power – to pursue the good and spurn evil (as Aquinas says in ST IaIIae 94, 2). There’s no separate faculty for motivating just action. Just action is wholly subsumed under our pursuit of our good. Rawlsians, in contrast, have a complex story about how we reach congruence between our two fundamental moral drives (actually, they have two, maybe three stories).

In this way, Rawlsians have a kind of “two wills” or “two affections” theory of practical reason, which is actually not exclusively modern, but has antecedents in Anselm (for two wills) and Scotus (for two affections).

For Rawlsians, then, our sense of justice is a fundamental part of practical reasoning. We can take the perspective of justice, understood in terms of fairness or reciprocity, and reason and act from it, and then we can ask a separate question about whether the perspective of justice can be reconciled with the perspective of the good. That’s not going to make much sense for the integralist.

IV. Or Should They?

But let’s do something Rawlsians don’t want to do. Let’s ask whether a two wills theory is true. If one can defend a two wills theory on metaphysical grounds, that would engage integralists on their own terms. And then they’d need to care about reasonableness, especially if the arguments are made from within the framework of Catholic Christianity.

I’m working on two papers right now that do just that, but it’s hard work.

My Review of Bob Talisse’s Overdoing Democracy

I recently reviewed Bob Talisse’s important new book, Overdoing Democracy, in an online journal, Erraticus, which is open access. Do take a look. The book is good, and it is both inexpensive and well-written. So if you’re interested in the subject, I recommend the book strongly.

Bob’s basic thesis is that American democracy is hurt by the fact that many people are extending democratic debates into too many parts of social life, creating unhealthy and destructive “political saturation.” I agree with his diagnosis, which is well-defended, but Bob tries to avoid giving concrete solutions to avoid taking a side in our democratic disputes, as well as foregoing explaining some of the mechanisms that have led to political saturation, both of which have some benefits, but also some costs.

An excerpt from my review:

I also thought the prescriptive part of the book would have profited from a discussion of why we’re seeing so much political saturation. I see two reasons Talisse doesn’t discuss: (1) that governments have power over a huge range of activities that they did not always have, and (2) that secularization is destroying the main source of cross-cutting identities—religious faith. It might be that societies will be tempted to overdo democracy when they want government to engage in a wide range of activities. Government is force, and so some will invariably wield it against others. Expanded states may mean expanded conflicts, even if one of our conflicts is over how extensive the state ought to be. And it might be that, with the decline of religious faith, we simply have fewer things that we place ultimate value on.

You don’t have to be a religious conservative to think these two phenomena will lead us to overdo democracy. It is not an especially partisan thought that the temptation to overdo democracy will continue unless we limit government’s power over our lives more than we do at present, since that will lower the stakes of politics. Nor is it expressly factional to think that we’re going to be tempted to overdo democracy if we lack compelling comprehensive doctrines that prioritize non-political values. This is true in particular because a relatively less religious society will tend to have more people with ideological commitments because—I think, plausibly—political ideology is the religion of modernity.

I recognize my recommendations will invite people to see the red tribe. Religion and limited government are unfortunately seen as red rather than blue values. But this is a mistake. Decentralizing and limiting the federal government will enable some parts of the country to better pursue a social democratic agenda. And allowing for more religious activity doesn’t necessarily mean more conservative Christians. There are liberal Christians, especially in marginalized communities.

So I think when we try to explore what it would take to stop overdoing democracy, we must look at solutions that may risk tempting our interlocutors to think that we’re in the red tribe or the blue tribe. But such an inquiry is necessary anyway. And without this inquiry, Overdoing Democracy struck me as incomplete. But that does not detract from the overall value of this excellent book, and is something that Talisse can explore in other work.

My Next Book – A Liberal Democratic Peace: Creating Trust in Polarized Times

I am pleased to announce that my next book, A Liberal Democratic Peace: Creating Trust in Polarized Times, will be published late this year with Oxford University Press. It is the data-driven sequel to Must Politics Be War? I argue in this book that specific liberal rights practices can not only be morally justified, but create social and political trust in the real world with real people. I focus primarily on freedom of associations, markets, social insurance, quality of governance, and democratic elections.
 
I wrote MPBW primarily for philosophers and political theorists, but this book is aimed more broadly at political scientists, economists, and policy people. It has philosophical argumentation, but I mark out where it begins and ends so that non-philosophical readers can profit from my overall argument. This book will also be much cheaper, under $30, so if you’re not a philosopher or political theorist who wants to learn about how we can build trust in diverse societies, then this book is for you.
 
Here’s another part of my pitch. I think that mistrust and polarization are in a causal feedback loop, and so those of you who are interested in addressing polarization may find the book of interest as well. If there are laws and policies that can increase trust, then perhaps we can contain the more destructive aspects of political polarization.

Are All States Confessional?

One common refrain I hear among anti-liberals, especially on the Christian right, is that all states are confessional states in the sense that they have deep dogmatic commitments whose sectarian character is either publicly recognized or, in the case of liberal states, concealed by dishonest rhetoric claiming liberal neutrality.

Much like the common refrain on the anti-liberal left that “everything is political,” I think the thesis that all states are confessional is either trivially true or substantive and false. Indeed, everything is political in the sense that life is full of conflict and disagreement with others about how to live well together. But that’s trivially true. On the other hand, if everything is political in the sense that everything involves, say, some kind of legal coercion, then the claim is substantive and false.

If all states are confessional in the sense that they have substantive moral commitments, say to the ideas of liberty and equality, then indeed all states are confessional, but that’s trivially true. No liberal denies it. But if all states are confessional in the sense that they have robust dogmatic commitments, then the claim is substantive and false. Liberal states have moral commitments, but they decline to take sides on a range of important matters, even if they end up taking a side on some issues. The idea is that liberal states are more neutral than confessional states, but not perfectly neutral. But then whoever claimed that liberal states are perfectly neutral? The liberal American state does not take a stand on which theological view is true, instead allowing different theologies to flourish. And in this sense it is more neutral than the classical confessional states. So here the claim that all states are confessional is substantive and false.

I think some who maintain that all states are confessional are essentially arguing that all politics is war, in that only one group or another can rule. And so some anti-liberals who say this are rationalizing actions that make politics war. If all politics is conquest, then the conquistadors can justify their actions. But if politics can establish a degree of moral peace – a peace based on a moral agreement between different perspectives – then the conquistador is exposed as having bad will. For he is prepared to dominate others to serve his political ends. Now, indeed, if politics is war, then such actions are justified. In a war, the game is to win. But if there is another way – the way of peace, which for the Christian is blessed (Matthew 5:9) – then conquest is domination. And, I think, sinful. This is not to say that those who maintain that all states are confessional are thereby sinning, rather that those who use this argument to justify violence sin thereby because the violence isn’t necessary.

Here’s another point I find of interest. Why do anti-liberals so often loudly and fiercely reject liberal neutralism? Some reject it because they think it false and pernicious, surely. But sometimes something else is going on. If liberal neutralism is feasible, then it is a morally compelling idealAnd I think many anti-liberals implicitly recognize this, which is why they often maintain that it is infeasible with such adamance.

I’ve argued that liberal neutralism can be understood in terms of a principle of public justification, and that public justification grounds our ability to establish moral relationships like trust in those with whom we disagree. If I’m right, those who maintain that politics is war undermine our ability to trust one another. This is a grave cost, one that love and respect for our political opponents prohibits us from paying.

Can Nationalism Promote Trust?

I’m fond of the claim that liberal institutions can and do create social and political trust, but sometimes I wonder whether nationalism can too. Well, it turns out there’s now some evidence in favor of the latter claim, from a recent paper from Christian Bjørnskov, Martin Rode, and Miguel Ángel Borrella Mas. The process of nation-building surrounding secession in Catalonia probably increased social trust.

Here’s the abstract:

Consequences of social trust are comparatively well studied, while its societal determinants are often subject to debate. This paper studies both in the context of Catalan attempts to secede from Spain: First, we test if Catalonia enjoys higher levels of social capital that it is prevented from capitalizing on. Second, the paper examines whether secessionist movements create animosity and political divisions within society that undermine trust. Employing the eight available waves of the European Social Survey for Spain, we show that social trust levels are not higher in Catalonia than in the rest of the country. However, we find indications of a significant regional increase after secession became a real option in 2014. We argue that this finding is a likely result of the mental process of nation building, indicating that the formation of social trust may best be thought of as a stable punctuated equilibrium.

The authors argue that “Catalan social trust has not declined as a result of the secessionist conflict, as argued by the unionist side of the discussion, but has rather increased significantly after 2014,” a difference equivalent to the difference between trust in the Netherlands and Sweden. The authors, of course, don’t argue for nationalism or deliberate nation-building, but we do have at least a bit of evidence that when states and societies deliberately try to build new identities, or perhaps to rediscover old ones, that can increase social trust. This may also buttress the possibility that large-scale immigration will be trust-decreasing insofar as it undermines shared identity. I’m not happy about either of these results, as they make trouble for my thesis, but I’m obligated to report it.

Integralism as Christian Default

The new Catholic integralists have caught fire on the internet and to some extent outside of it Their proposal is simple. What should the state do? Promote the full authentic human good. For the integralist, the full authentic good is as Catholicism describes. What distinguishes integralist states from other kinds of political order is that the state uses coercion to promote expressly Catholic ends, even in matters of faith. Religious coercion has some limits, but it can be used to punish heresy and apostasy, and to ensure that Catholicism is the religion of the state. (See Thomas Pink’s defense of the position.)

The integralist proposal disturbs many people (including Catholics) because integralists reject liberal freedom of religion and embraces religious coercion. Given the untoward implications of integralism, most familiar with the view set it aside on the basis of an argument like the following:

  1. If integralism is true, religious coercion is not wrong.
  2. But religious coercion is wrong.
  3. Therefore, integralism is false.

I don’t think integralism can be so easily dismissed. The reason is that integralism has a certain elegance and simplicity and even obviousness. It tells us that states should help people achieve their ultimate good. Besides feasibility worries, why wouldn’t this be the best thing for the state to do? Are non-integralists really asking the state to do less than the best? Doesn’t that just sound crazy when we state it openly?

What anti-integralists need is a satisfying explanation as to why integralism is axiologically false. The anti-integralist need to explain why integralism has the wrong conceptions of value, reasons, and practical rationality. The more time I spent with their position, the harder I find it is to articulate attractive alternatives approaches that are compatible with Christian belief. I now think integralism can only be answered with some fundamental revisions to standard theistic ethical theories, in particular natural law theory and divine command theory. We need a theistic deontology, but one where side-constraints are grounded in the divine nature (most natural rights theorists ground rights in the divine nature only obliquely).

I think I can convey the power of the integralist challenge by using an analogy with act-consequentialism in normative ethics (which holds that the right acts are those that maximize well-being). Integralism and act-consequentialism are simple, elegant theories with seemingly untoward implications, but they are so elegant that many theorists will adopt the view and simply accept the implications. And even good men will do so, like Peter Singer (a lead consequentialist) and Adrian Vermeule (a lead integralist).

As we know, the cost of act-consequentialism is having to sacrifice some for others. The cost of integralism is similar, though less nasty. The integralist must embrace religious coercion of the baptized (as punishment for apostasy or heresy), which the vast majority of reflective Christians today think is gravely unjust, including practically all leading Catholic theologians, bishops, cardinals, and most recent popes. The integralists insist the cost must be paid, and try to contain the costs by pointing to the differing moral intuitions of prominent Catholics in the past.

Act-consequentialism and integralism are plainly quite different normative theories. They are elegant approaches to ethics and political theory respectively because they make the good the sole normative master conception in a straightforward way. So much so, that one might even think that they’re the default normative theories.

I think that work on act-consequentialism has shown why it is axiologically mistaken. But I don’t think we yet have an account of why integralist axiology is mistaken if we take the truth of Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, for granted.

Robert Nozick said of John Rawls that “political philosophers now must either work within Rawls’s theory of explain why not.” Perhaps this is giving integralism too much credit, but I think that “Christian political theologians now must either work within an integralist framework or explain why not.” Christians need a satisfying explanation as to why the state should not promote the ultimate good, and after surveying the alternatives, I don’t think there’s a good candidate explanation yet.